Kristen Callihan's Darkest London series has been getting rave reviews and Winterblaze is no exception. In the latest installment of her historical paranormal romance, we get a much deeper look into the darker side of London that very few know about. Thanks to Ms. Callihan and Grand Central Publishing, I have an excerpt to share with you from the first chapter of Winterblaze.
You can check out my reviews for all of the Darkest London books here: Firelight, Moonglow and Winterblaze.
The West End, August 28, 1883
A telegram, as sent to the SOS Home Office:
Daughter of the Elements STOP All of us must reap what we sow STOP Now it is your turn STOP I’ll take not the heart of ice that resides in your sweet breast but the fragile one that beats in another and sail away with it on a ship of fire STOP When I tear it to shreds you will remember the agony of failing STOP Again STOP
The way to her parlor was along a winding stair, but down, not up. Down in the pit of the earth where sunlight and fresh air never reached. Yes, a proper English parlor with electric lights and air forced by means of an elaborate fan system of such strange modern devices that even the most jaded persons took a moment to stop and wonder.
Poppy had recently shown her sister Daisy the way in, a fact that she was beginning to regret as she settled back in her desk chair and surveyed the two women sitting in front of her. One of the women was Daisy, looking luminous as ever and trussed up in an extravagant frock which was no doubt highly fashionable, and equally uncomfortable. Having ferreted out Poppy's secrets with surprising speed, Daisy had earned the right to be here.
The other woman was the problem. Miss Mary Chase. Oh, she sat demure and quiet as Daisy prattled on in that way of hers, but the girl's glittering eyes took in every nook and cranny of Poppy's office. Learning and secreting away bits of information as only a GIM could do.
GIMs, or Ghosts in the Machines, were the best spies in the underworld. Blessed by a demon to have an immortal body with the ability to leave it in spirit form, they could drift into any room, listen in on any conversation. And now this GIM knew the way to Poppy's office. Bloody hell. Poppy had requested to speak with Daisy. She had not expected her sister to bring along a guest.
"Well?" Daisy prompted, breaking into Poppy's thoughts. Poppy took a short breath and pulled herself together.
Something that was getting harder and harder to do. Inside she was frozen and fairly certain that, one day, her outer skin would simply freeze over as well.
"You want me to bring this girl to Mother," Poppy repeated, her lips feeling numb. Mother was the head of The Society for the Suppression of Supernaturals, or SOS, an organization whose sole focus was to keep the world from learning the truth: that the monsters in their fairytales were real. Mother, whom no one, no one, ever met. Really, the nerve of Daisy sometimes. Poppy tapped her fingers to relieve the urge to wrap them about her sister's lovely neck.
Daisy too was a GIM. A decision she'd made in the face of a gruesome, prolonged death. She'd saved herself by making a devil's bargain. And now she would never die. Daisy would be here long after Poppy was dust in the ground. It made Poppy unaccountably sad, though she really couldn't say precisely why.
Daisy glanced at Poppy's thrumming fingers. Poppy instantly stopped. Daisy too tapped her fingers when she was agitated. A stupid slip to do in front of her sister. Damn it all.
When Daisy replied, it was with exaggerated patience. "Not precisely. I am here to make an introduction to Mother." Poppy froze. Daisy could not possibly be implying what she thought she was. "Why did you not bring your
request to Lena?" Poppy hedged.
Daisy's eyes gleamed bright for one sharp moment. "I had assumed my sister would be a little more accommodating. Perhaps I was wrong."
Poppy looked away first. It had been petty to bait Daisy. While Lena was Mother's official go-between and requests for Mother always went through her, she had also been Ian Ranulf's lover years ago. As Ian was now Daisy's husband, the women did not particularly find each other's presence comfortable.
"Look," Daisy leaned forward, her tone forgiving when Poppy knew she'd normally drag out her displeasure, "Mary is the best GIM we have."
"Then why do you want to lose her?"
Mary Chase stirred. "If I may speak for myself?" There was a bit of fire in her eyes, something Poppy had to admire, and so she nodded. Miss Chase settled her slim hands on her lap as she faced Poppy without blinking.
"My term of service with the GIMs is over." Her hands clenched for a moment. "Mrs. Lane, I want to be a Regulator. I have wanted this for some time."
Poppy managed not to wince upon hearing her name. Mrs. Lane. A farce, for her husband had left her. The pain that lived in her chest spread out to her arms and then down to her fingers. She didn't allow it to show but let her gaze wander over Miss Chase. The young woman appeared to be all of nineteen, but from Poppy's reports, she was closer to Poppy's own age, having lost her first life in 1873.
"I gather you know this," Poppy answered. "However, I feel compelled to remind you that being a Regulator is no easy task. They live a hard life, and it is often quite short." Regulators were the SOS's agents, men and women on the front lines of the supernatural world. They came face to face with things that gave monsters nightmares. Poppy leaned in a touch. "And believe me, many an immortal's head has rolled while on the job. Just because you cannot die, doesn't mean you cannot be killed, child."
Mary Chase's wide, brown eyes narrowed. "I am not a child. And I'm not afraid of death."
Poppy rose from her desk, no longer willing to sit still. "Everyone says that." She grabbed her thick cloak. "And then they discover that, in their heart, they have lied. I don't believe GIMs get a second chance should they lose their head, do they?"
"No," Mary said after a moment. "Come."
The two women rose and followed her to the door. Poppy walked through it, not waiting to see if they kept up. Outside of the office, Mr. Smythe sat at his desk, his pasty skin blending with his grey hair. He faced a vast and dark corridor, and often times Poppy wondered how he could stand looking into that abyss on a daily, sometimes nightly, basis. Mr. Smythe, however, never complained. He gave her a deferential nod as she passed. She had worked alongside Smythe for fourteen years, and yet he did not know about Winston or that she had a fondness for meat pies sold by street vendors. Not one person within the SOS truly knew her. People tended to stay away from Poppy as though they felt she was something alien and not like them. Which said quite a lot, given that most of her colleagues possessed gifts that were the epitome of unearthly. She did not precisely mind the isolation. She had Winston. . . . Poppy's step nearly halted. She did not have Win. He was gone. And she was alone.
"I had a good reason for this, you know," Daisy murmured just behind her as they slipped into the stone-lined corridor. Here and there electric torches glowed, turning Daisy's blond curls a harsh yellow. Mary Chase followed at an inconspicuous distance, her eyes lowered and subservient. Ha. Men might be fooled by the display but not Poppy.
"You better have," Poppy said, just as low. "You've come quite close to breaking my trust today, Dandelion." Daisy made a noise of annoyance at the nickname, but she quickened her stride to catch up and then grabbed Poppy's elbow, forcing her to slow down. "Pop. Listen for
a moment, will you?"
Every muscle in Poppy's body went heavy and cold. She knew that tone in Daisy's voice, as well as the soft, despicable pity that dimmed her eyes. "Well," Poppy said through her teeth, "out with it. And then explain what it has to do with Miss Chase here."
Daisy took a stabilizing breath. "She knows." Her voice dipped a bit. "Who you are."
The struggle not to break something, or someone, held Poppy in place, frozen with shock and outrage. Daisy took a half step back, her mouth opening and closing like a puppet's, her hand lifting as if in defense. Smart woman. Poppy couldn't fathom why her sister would break her trust in such a manner.
Poppy advanced. "Have you lost your nut? What on God's green earth gave you the right?"
Daisy's pointed silence gave her a moment's qualm, which Daisy pounced on. "I agree that it is bloody irritating to be managed by one's sister." Poppy scowled, and Daisy ignored it. "However, as you've been known to point out, I have only the best intentions." Daisy touched her arm. "You need a companion, Pop."
A harsh laugh burst from Poppy. "You think I'm that infirm, do you? I bid you to remember that I am thirty-two. Hardly ancient, despite what your society friends might think."
"I do not think that you are ancient, Pop," said Daisy quietly. "I think that you are in pain."
"Do not." Poppy took a sharp breath. "Do not ever pity me, Daisy."
Bad enough that her sisters knew Win had left her. It had been humiliating. But that was nothing compared to the emptiness and the dull, unwavering ache that his absence wrought upon her.
In the gloom, Daisy's eyes gleamed like star sapphires, the effect of her new GIM nature when emotions were roused within her. "Pity and empathy are not the same thing."
"You have brought a GIM to keep me company," Poppy snapped, "as if you fear I might do something drastic."
What nonsense. Poppy did not do drastic things. She simply died a little more inside each day and wished the world to go away. That had not worked particularly well; the world was still here.
Daisy's gaze searched hers. "Mary is loyal and discreet. And she is entirely trustworthy. On my life, I swear that."
"Good thing to swear, as your life might very well be what I take." It was entirely too temping at the moment.
"I am shaking," Daisy said with an unladylike snort before becoming serious once more. "You need someone to keep you focused. And lord knows that bitch Lena will not do that for you. She's just as likely to stick her fangs into your neck when your back is turned."
"You really ought to get over your dislike of Lena." "Pish," Daisy said with a wave of her hand, "that woman means nothing to me. And you know full well that I speak the truth in regard to her character."
Unfortunately, Daisy was right. Lena wasn't the helpful sort. She despised weakness even more than Poppy did.
Poppy sighed, then looked at Mary Chase who hovered just beyond the circle of light where Daisy and Poppy stood. The young GIM had drifted back, having correctly read Poppy's request for a modicum of privacy. Poppy turned back to Daisy. "I asked you here because I seek information, not a nanny."
"Then ask away," Daisy retorted. "Mary won't tell a soul, and as she is currently my right hand, I'd tell her anyway. So you can drop that repressive glare, Pop."
Just once, Poppy would love to wring her sister's neck. Hell, Daisy would easily recover so it wouldn't be out-right murder. She studied the unflinching Mary Chase for a long moment. Sensible woman, crafty, discreet. It could all be a lie. Poppy's life depended on her choices. Which meant she had to use more than logic, but instinct as well, to survive.
"All right then, Miss Chase," she said to the woman. "You have your chance"
Miss Chase curtsied prettily. "Thank you, Mrs. Lane." "Don't thank me just yet. A demon has escaped his prison," she said to them. "I received the report from Lena an hour ago. The only information we have of his current whereabouts is from a telegram, which may or may not have been sent by him. It makes mention of a ship of fire." Her hand rested upon the cold, stone wall. "It is imperative that the SOS locate him. Immediately."
Needing to move, Poppy turned away and strode up the cast-iron staircase that spiraled upward. Heels clanked upon the metal, then Poppy reached the top and turned the handle, which released several heavy bolts. The heavy door pushed open without a sound, and the familiar, comforting scent of books and wood polish greeted her as she stepped into her bookshop.
Daisy and Mary followed, and then she pushed the door shut and heard the sound of the bolts slipping back into place.
Daisy's pretty face was pale. She knew something. Damn. Instinct had Poppy's hackles rising before Daisy even spoke. "Winston is on holiday in Paris."
"Paris? Win hates Paris." Poppy had tried to get him to take her there on holiday years ago, and he'd outright refused, calling it a heathenish, boorish city, filled with wastrels and gadabouts. Poppy told him he'd overstated his case, but Win had made it up to her by keeping her in bed for their holiday, giving her an interesting demonstration of his own rather heathenish proclivities.
Thankfully, Daisy responded before Poppy could dwell any further on that time. "All I know is that he went there after . . ." Daisy nibbled on her bottom lip.
"After what?" Poppy could not cull the worry from her voice. Win had left her, and still she was fretting over him like a bloody mother hen.
Daisy's nose wrinkled. "He beat a suspect to a pulp two weeks ago. The CID let him go, Poppy."
Poppy sagged against the counter. She could not fathom Win losing control of his temper. And the CID was his life. Winston Lane was an inspector, first and always.
What would he do now? How must he feel? Lost, she realized. Win had given up everything to become an inspector, including being cut off from his very powerful family. Daisy's voice broke through her musings.
"He is set to return aboard Archer's boat,"
"Ship. One does not call an ocean liner a boat."
"Ship," Daisy corrected with an eye roll. "At any rate, the ship is called The Ignitus." Daisy made a halfhearted attempt to smile. "Archer named it for Miranda."
Poppy's heart stopped. Ignitus, Latin for "set on fire." Daisy's breath came out in visible puffs as the air about them chilled and ice began to crackle over the counter. Poppy couldn't rein in the reaction. Dear God, how had Isley known? She'd been so careful to keep this life separate from Win.
"When is the ship set to sail?" Poppy's body hummed with the urge to move, to run.
"I believe it's due to depart this Friday. That is two days from now." Daisy's smooth brow furrowed. "Poppy, you can't mean to meet it. The bloody thing is in Calais! We are in London," she added with unnecessary emphasis.
Rage pushed its way along Poppy's veins, making her see more clearly than she had in months.
To find out more about Kristen Callihan and her books, visit her website here.
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